WASHINGTON -- Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, at age 69, is not about to leave the Democratic Party and probably never will. But were it not for the party's control of the Senate hanging by the thread of a single vote, Democratic leaders would wish the feisty professional politician from Harris, Ga., would just leave their midst.
He did temporarily depart for several weeks, staying away from Senate Democratic caucus luncheons while the tax cut was being discussed. He has since returned but does not spare his lifelong party his criticism -- most recently in a long-distance debate with Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe. To follow McAuliffe's harshly partisan line, Miller contends, promises a dolorous Democratic future.
This is more than the complaint of a "maverick" (as Miller has been called in the press, while the ex-Republican Sen. James Jeffords is always labeled "principled"). The sole independent Southern moderate senator, Miller sees McAuliffe traveling a path to disaster in the South and, therefore, the nation. He calculates that Al Gore's shutout in the old Confederacy last year that gave George W. Bush a four-vote margin in the Electoral College would yield an 18-vote plurality in 2004, thanks to Southern population growth.
Miller, who has been winning Georgia elections for much of the last 42 years, comes from a different world than multi-millionaire Washington fixer McAuliffe, a ferocious fund-raiser and Bill Clinton golfing buddy. Miller could only shake his head when he saw McAuliffe's recent web site urging taxpayers to send their tax-cut money to the Democratic National Committee. "I wonder if the Republicans are paying him (McAuliffe)," Miller told me.
Earlier, when city slicker McAuliffe was quoted in U.S. News & World Report as pledging to woo rural voters, Miller sent the magazine a letter (not yet published) that reflects his style and his attitude. Anticipating McAuliffe's venture into the rural South by saying, "I can't wait to see what squishes up between his toes as he travels among us," the senator added: "Unlike our GOP opponents, we have to prove that we will not raise taxes, let all of the crooks out of prison, pour the public's money down a variety of rat holes, double everybody's welfare check, condone the burning of the American flag, let serial ax-murders escape the electric chair, confiscate everybody's guns and take down the Christmas tree at city hall."
Miller is a tough former Marine sergeant (wearing the Corps insignia on his lapel), and the Senate Democratic power structure is learning not to confront him. Senate Democratic Leader Thomas Daschle expressed exasperation when he learned as this year's session began that Miller was co-sponsoring President Bush's tax bill. What followed was an unpleasant meeting with the two senators interrupting each other. Miller told friends he had managed to live with the famously tough Georgia House Speaker Thomas B. Murphy during his 16 years as lieutenant governor and eight years as governor; after Murphy, he said, he could handle Daschle.
Since Miller several weeks ago leaked that he might change parties, Daschle has watched his words. However, the warning was really aimed more at two vociferous critics of his tax position: Georgia civil rights leader Joseph Lowery and Miller's old campaign consultant, James Carville. Miller had recommended Carville to Bill Clinton for his presidential campaign. But when Miller endorsed the Bush tax plan, Carville sent him an e-mail asking for the return of his $1,000 contribution to the 2000 Senate campaign. Miller did so immediately, and the two former friends have not spoken since.
Miller's closest associate in the Democratic caucus is freshman Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a moderate who occasionally defies party discipline (but not nearly so often as Miller). His closest associate in the Senate is conservative Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. Reflexive liberal orthodoxy in Democratic ranks does not appeal to Miller.
Were he younger and had he fewer proteges in the Georgia Democratic establishment, Zell Miller might have crossed over to the Republican caucus. He surely would feel more at home there. Instead, Tom Daschle must suffer Miller's votes and opinions to keep enjoying the pleasures of majority status.